Opinion: The Woodshed

N.C. Supreme Court mulling groundbreaking bullying case

The courtroom of the N.C. Supreme Court Wiki Commons photo
The courtroom of the N.C. Supreme Court Wiki Commons photo

The N.C. Supreme Court on March 23 heard oral arguments in a case that could for the first time extend state constitutional protections against extreme bullying in public schools and hold school systems responsible when failing to act.

The state high court will decide if North Carolina’s constitutional right of a “sound basic education” as defined in the long-running Leandro case extends to an affirmative responsibility of school leaders to stop extreme bullying.

The court could also examine a larger question: Does the state constitutional guarantee of a sound basic education go beyond the state’s obligation to fund educational systems, but to local school systems to ensure delivery of said sound basic education?

In Deminski v. The State Bd. of Educ., the plaintiffs’ lawyers put forward the argument that bullying and sexual abuse deprived several students of access to a sound basic education.

From the plaintiff’s brief:

Ashley Deminski sent her three children to a local elementary school in Pitt County for the first steps in their formal education. But instead of a place of learning, that school turned out to be a place of terror. Inside the school, all three children were continuously abused by other students. The bullies intentionally disrupted the Deminskis during classroom instruction and tests. One student at the school would even pull his pants down and fondle his genitals in front of the Deminski children. The bullies also physically assaulted the Deminski children until they had trouble breathing and swallowing.

At the state Court of Appeals, a 2-1 majority of judges agreed that our state constitution does not protect students from “alleged ‘deliberate indifference to the ‘hostile academic environment’” at a Pitt County elementary school.

More specifically, the court’s majority agreed that three students could not argue in court that “repeated” and “severe” bullying and ongoing sexual harassment at school violated their state constitutional rights. Plaintiffs’ lawyers had contended the abuse deprived the students of access to a sound basic education, even though the judge’s ruling against the students said the behavior was “extremely disturbing.”

The students’ legal team argued that teachers and principals failed to take any action against ongoing abuse from four classmates. “School personnel’s only response was to insist that the ‘process’ would ‘take time’; meanwhile, ‘no substantive changes’” were made, and ‘the bullying and harassing conduct continued unabated,’” according to the majority opinion.

After as much as two years of abuse, the targeted students transferred to a new school. By that time, their academic performance “fell as a result of the perpetually chaotic school environment.” Their lawsuit sought money damages. It also called for the school to bring its personnel into compliance with the state School Violence Prevention Act.

The Appeals Court majority’s bottom line in Deminski: “Neither this Court nor our Supreme Court has recognized abuse, even repeated abuse, or an abusive classroom environment as a violation of the constitutional right to education.”

Judge Valerie Zachary differed in her dissent:

“Plaintiff’s complaint reveals that the hostile classroom environment at Lakeforest Elementary School was such that there was a persistent, two-year-long interruption of the Minor Plaintiffs’ daily test-taking, assignment, and instructional opportunities,” Zachary added. “Due to Defendant’s indifference to this environment, the ‘academic performance of all three Minor Plaintiffs fell … with the Minor Plaintiffs each suffering substantially adverse educational consequences.’”

She added too that, “Taking these allegations as true, as we must, Plaintiff’s claim falls squarely within the constitutional deprivation that was contemplated in Leandro.”

Zachary challenged her colleagues’ assertion that a guarantee of a sound basic education would not include freedom from “repeated abuse.”

In its filing with the court, the Pitt County Board of Education argues that the duty to guarantee a sound basic education is a state responsibility, not one of local government.

“This Court should not expand the contours of the education clauses of the North Carolina Constitution to impose a constitutional duty upon a local school board to protect an individual student from harm caused by the physical or verbal abuse by a third party.”

Justice Phil Berger Jr. explored this point in oral arguments, asking attorney Deborah Stagner representing the Pitt County School Board:

“Does the North Carolina Constitution grant students a property right, to a sound basic education,” asked Justice Berger.

“There is no guarantee of ensuring that a student actually does receive a sound basic education.”

Stagner continued:

“It is a right to have access to that system of education that meets minimum educational standards.”

In its brief filed with the court, the plaintiffs argued that:

“The Board’s argument in its response brief is astonishing in its breadth. According to the Board, it can never violate the state constitution, no matter how irrationally it may deny a student access to public education. The Board’s position would apparently be the same if its teachers had abused the Deminskis themselves or locked them in a closet during the school day.”

The constitution makes clear that “access” to public education is an individual right for every child in our state.

This vital case has many groups like the ACLU, school boards, and disability groups across the state weighing in and filing briefs with the courts.